University of Iowa bumps up in U.S. News rankings

Iowa State University loses ground among public, private schools

University of Iowa Pentacrest (Gazette photo)
University of Iowa Pentacrest (Gazette photo)

After losing ground last year in the oft-touted U.S. News & World Report rankings, the University of Iowa has improved four spots to No. 34 among public universities nationally.

The Hawkeyes also made gains when compared to both public and private universities, improving from No. 89 to No. 84, according to the 2020 “best colleges” rankings made public Monday.

The university’s improved public and overall rankings failed to rectify losses from last year — when it dropped from No. 31 to No. 38 among publics and from No. 78 to No. 89 overall.

And Iowa State University, per the new rankings, continued its slide among public and private universities, falling from No. 119 to No. 121. ISU two years ago was at No. 115 overall and No. 111 the year before that.

Among just public universities, Iowa State improved one spot this year, moving from No. 56 to No. 55 — although still below its No. 53 and No. 51 rankings the previous years.

University of Northern Iowa saw the biggest gains among Iowa’s public universities, improving in the category of public and private Midwest schools to No. 20 from No. 25, where it had stalled for two years. UNI, which is not ranked nationally, held steady at No. 2 among publics in the region.

The U.S. News rankings in their 35th year have become an important resource for prospective students and a point of pride for university heads pitching their respective schools to elite faculty and lawmakers considering how to spend valuable state resources.


UI President Bruce Harreld in June discussed with the Board of Regents his school’s U.S. News rankings using a PowerPoint presentation, which he acknowledged using many times before, to show how Iowa stacks up to its peer institutions.

“University of Iowa uses those institutions to benchmark our performance in almost everything we do,” he said. “This benchmarking of student success clearly illustrates where we need to improve, thereby helping us to focus our resources on areas of critical need.”

At that June meeting, Harreld directly addressed what had been a drop in the rankings.

“While no one wants to highlight a fall in the rankings, it’s important for you and all of our constituents to understand that we have a plan for addressing this slide,” he said. “That plan is in fact our strategic plan, and in particular the elements of our strategic plan that are devoted to student success.”

The university is working toward improved retention rates, graduation rates, research and scholarship productivity, and officials are pushing lawmakers for more resources to make that happen. The UI and Iowa State also this fall upped tuition rates to make up for lost state support over time.

“With sufficient resources to fund the strategic plan, we can in fact get there,” Harreld said.

Although Iowa improved in this year’s rankings, it actually slipped below Indiana University, dropping it one spot among its peers to second from the bottom — where it tops only the University of Arizona.

When compared to fellow Big Ten schools, UI in the new rankings also placed second from the bottom, besting just University of Nebraska, which ranked No. 64 among publics.

U.S. News & World Report — which has fine-tuned its methodology over the years — ranks bachelor’s degree-granting institutions based on 15 measures of academic quality, such as retention and graduation rates; financial resources; class sizes; and faculty pay.


It assesses social mobility — a measure of how well schools graduate low-income students who received Pell Grants — and “expert opinion,” which takes into account a school’s reputation. U.S. News administered peer assessment surveys in spring 2018 and 2019 to determine reputation, and 43 percent of the 4,815 academics who were sent questionnaires responded.

The publication also ranks undergraduate business and engineering programs, and the UI Tippie College of Business ranked No. 31 among all public and private schools.

The UI College of Engineering ranked No. 66 among colleges that offer doctoral degrees.

Iowa State’s engineering college tied for 25th among public universities and tied for 46th overall. Its business program tied for 48th among publics and 79th overall.

As for Iowa’s private universities, Cornell College in Mount Vernon earned the top spot on the publication’s list of “top performers on social mobility” among national liberal arts schools. Cornell also ranked No. 68 among liberal arts colleges nationally, No. 66 on the publication’s “best value” list, and No. 40 for best undergraduate teaching.

Cedar Rapids’ Coe College tied for No. 130 in national liberal arts colleges; Mount Mercy ranked No. 40 among regional universities in the Midwest; and Grinnell College ranked No. 14 among national liberal arts college.

The top five among all universities and colleges nationally are Princeton at No. 1, Harvard at No. 2, and Columbia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Yale, which tied for No. 3.

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